Political virtues and why they matter
Martin Hutchison is an enthusiastic Fabian and, like everyone else, blogs about politics. Here he sets out an analysis of political virtues, finding an explanation of Tory and SNP success, and the root of an idea to help Labour find its way back.
Daniel Johnson, in a thoughtful piece on the Scottish Fabians website, asks for Labour to understand its virtues and act upon them, seeing this, rather than clever policy formation, as a potential route back to power. In a related piece Duncan Hothersall wonders whether politics has become “post rational” and suggests that that, perhaps, explains how it was that a long discredited nationalism such as that offered by the SNP was able to unexpectedly crawl out of the dustbin of history to which humanity, in a fit of progress and nobility, had long consigned it.
Daniel is specific; he wants Labour to ascribe to a set of ethics called moral intuitions rather than a crude utilitarian calculus of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Duncan observes the tide of emotion upon which the SNP surge has surfed so successfully and despairs of a way to defeat it in rational argument.
I think Duncan is right about the emotional basis of the SNP’s politics but I would argue that Labour’s politics also has an emotional basis. Daniel is correct in regarding virtuous moral intuitions as superior to utilitarianism; indeed Labour displaced an elite intellectual political Liberalism in the 19th century for this very reason.
Labour offered two moral intuitions back then, two cardinal virtues which sustain it today: fairness (call it social justice or solidarity or equality) and harm reduction (think health and safety, seat belts, breathalysers, smoking bans). Now there is problem with this magnificent moral purpose – other people can consider social justice immoral. We call them Conservatives. Others regard smoking bans, for example, as a basic infringement of their freedom and immoral for that very reason. We call them Libertarians, fewer in number than Conservatives but not less morally outraged.
For Conservatives the transfer of wealth from the industrious to the indigent is moral turpitude, or even that taking earned wealth from one party to give to another is moral hazard. That is the problem with virtue-based politics as moral intuitions, they simultaneously repel and attract. Labour has something of a monopoly on its particular virtues but the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems all have moral appeal based on differing senses of what constitutes moral worth.
That is why and how they are political parties, immensely salient and stable over time, and still relevant in their appeal to millions. Many (possibly most) voters most of the time are not fooled but, on the contrary, actually understand really rather well what politicians stand for.
Does the notion of competing moral intuitions doom Labour to failure and what is the relationship of these moral intuitions to emotion and rationality? Is there any explanation in any of this, at a deeper moralised level, for Labour being beaten twice (in both Scotland and England) in the one election? And how does policy formation fit into all this? And why do the Tories win all the elections? Oddly, or perhaps not oddly, all these questions are interlinked.
First, a word about morality and morals in this context: moral intuitions are not the same as ordinary common or garden morals such as not cheating, not stealing, and not lying and, emphatically, not hitting people on the head with beer glasses in pubs. Politicians all subscribe, publicly at least, to this common or garden morality and get into more and more trouble when they transgress against it.
It is their job, however, to transgress against some moral intuitions and support others. Politics has this entirely moralised character in ironic contrast to the public perception of a “parcel of rogues”. There are, then, two different flavours of morality in play. Not that they aren’t often confused, but no political party can base its appeal on a claim to virtue defined as personal honesty. (In other words, honesty may be the best policy but it shouldn’t go into your manifesto.)
So why do moral intuitions about right and wrong confuse and confound so much? Historically ignorant armies would clash by night but now an American Social Psychologist has gone and put the light on in a ground breaking book, The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt might as well have said that bad people are similarly divided but that is not strictly relevant here, what he means is that people who are personally honest can regard their politics as moral and virtuous and your politics as morally dissolute.
Haidt identifies six moral foundations that define our politics:
- Harm reduction
- Loyalty (to your in-group)
- Authority (for and against, think Jeremy Corbyn and George W Bush)
If that last one seems a bit odd, consider whether the SNP have sanctified Scotland itself and the saltire in particular. Others regard the SNP’s capturing of the saltire as an outrage. All the other foundations work like that, some ascribing to them strongly, some weakly, some with approbation, some with hostility.
Take the fairness foundation. Labour people have a strong moral intuition that fairness is right and unfairness is wrong. Haidt then observes that liberals and socialists consequently experience strong emotions and then reason strategically to support that intuition with arguments, policy papers, manifestos and books. That deployment of strategic reason is universal, and gives politics it Tower of Babel character, the endless talking past one and another with, say, moralised pro-freedom Libertarians acknowledging some facts, deploying others, inventing some, distorting others.
Who knew that politics worked like that? Everyone. But Haidt shows how and why:
Moral intuition of rightness or wrongness
> Big cloud of emotion
> Strategic reasoning
Labour’s central strength is also it weakness. It is founded on a passion for fairness and harm reduction, it is weak on freedom, loyalty and pro-authority, and it sanctifies virtually nothing with its strong adoption of these two foundations having the effect of both attracting and repelling support simultaneously. Labour is like a golfer going around the course with a three iron and a putter, technically possible but at a distinct disadvantage against those with a wider selection of clubs.
Conservatives have that advantage: they do actually believe in fairness and harm reduction but weakly; they believe in the nation as a source of moral authority; they believe in in-group loyalty over out-group considerations (we are having a referendum on our EU membership) and they sanctify things – church, the constitution, tradition. Haidt calls this the conservative advantage and if politics is primarily a form of moralised psychology, and secondly a contest of ideas, then that might just explain the near hegemonic conservative ascendancy in current European politics.
In May, one in seven English voters voted for a new political force based on in-group loyalty, pro-authoritarianism and remarkably and simultaneously anti-authoritarianism, freedom from the EU and re-establishing the purity (read sanctity) of the UK legislative process and UK society from contaminating individuals from the wider continent seeking our jobs.
So enormous is the nature of the in-built conservative advantage identified and described by Haidt that not one but two conservative parties walked over and annihilated Labour in England.
To Daniel’s point that Labour will “not emerge from this crisis through policy and positioning”: this is not the case. Labour still needs to give people reasons to strategically return to its moral intuitions of fairness and harm reduction. Policy can also have a critical function beyond its primary purpose (making stuff better) to point to other intuitions such as our basic patriotism (in-group loyalty), our scepticism of some EU activity (more in-group loyalty), our contempt for ISIS (moralised pro-authoritarianism) or our objection to ending the Human Rights Act (moralised freedom and moralised anti-authoritarianism). The trick is to emphasise or even invent policies which reference and touch the places that Labour politics doesn’t instinctively go.
To Duncan’s point about living in a “post rational” world: it was always so – morals first, emotion second and reasoning third. This is the basic architecture of our evolved human nature. What is probably happening is that under conditions of stress the efficacy of the interplay of competing strategic reasoning breaks down and becomes less effective, and the emotional core of our politics is revealed. Now the UK has just had its worse seven years since that plague of insects in Egypt mentioned in the Bible and this type of notorious stressor is going to increase the emotional cloud as basic moral intuitions are referenced and the quality of strategic reasoning becomes weaker and shriller. The emotional content was always there; it is just rising to the surface.
If the election went badly for Labour in England (blame Jonathan Haidt) then in Scotland Labour was wiped out by a party which had a policy of closing down all the primary schools, all the secondary schools, all the colleges and all the universities or alternatively borrowing the additional sums required under a policy of full fiscal autonomy for Scotland. If politics was about contending values or ideologies or the clash of ideas then that wouldn’t happen.
But if you thought that Scotland itself constituted virtue, was a moral incarnation (in-group loyalty) and you valued Scottish freedom (freedom moralised) and supported your government (pro-authority) and hated the Tories (moralised anti-authoritarianism) and believed in fairness (and we do in Scotland but they do not in England), then in that case you might reason strategically, that is you might overlook certain discordant facts (pan-UK solidarity is really quite a thing) and stress others (food banks protected by nuclear weapons).
Labour’s wipe out by the SNP was achieved through a direct attack on Labour’s central weakness – it only believes in two big things, fairness and harm reduction. The SNP used to only believe in two big things as well – the foundations of in-group loyalty and freedom (for Scotland). They have consciously pursued a strategy of displacing Labour by deliberately, intentionally and determinedly colonising its fairness and harm reduction foundations over the last 15 years.
In addition to this strategy their political positioning reaped no less than, in Haidtian terms, three other foundations – they always had the sanctification of the saltire and Scotland, but being in government they can appeal to moralised pro-authoritarians, and their antipathy towards the UK reaps the rich harvest of the hard left’s and Greens’ moralised anti-authoritarianism. (What else causes the Scottish hard left to abandon pan UK solidarity other than a psychological factor?)
It is this conjunction of moral foundations that gives the rise of nationalism in Scotland the feel of a religious revival and a broad based cultural revolution. The self-referential, hermetically sealed nature of the SNP’s politics is explicable by the pivot nature of in-group loyalty, as once Scotland is the pivot then only the other moral intuitions apply to Scotland. Fairness is Scottish fairness only, and so on.
The referendum process suited the SNP perfectly because it was able to organise an argument from the whole spectrum of the intuitions upon which its politics have come to be based, to the epic cloud of emotion which was everywhere last autumn, to the rational argument of Scotland’s future. Their Better Together opponents decided to have a rational argument with an emotional one and the result was a formal numerical victory but an epic political defeat.
OK, enough analysis already, what to do?